March 3, 2002

Slave to the Polls

By: Timothy P. Carney

On December 10, 1998, as the media attacked Republicans preparing for the impeachment vote for daring to “overturn a democratic election,” a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll found that 71% of respondents considered President Clinton guilty of perjury. Two days later, an ABC/Washington Post poll found that only 38% supported impeachment.

These seemingly disparate results were not a result of any trove of exculpatory evidence found on December 11. No, they stem from two problems endemic in the media and polling.

First, public opinion polls are sloppily worded and methodologically unsound in their attention to sample size, randomness and makeup. Second, pollsters, like the media at large, fail to see governmental issues in the context of the Constitution, which is reflected in their polling questions. That’s how many Americans could consider the president guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors and still think he ought not be impeached. But this kind of carelessness does more than help the popularity of feloneous presidents, it endangers our form of government and threatens our freedom.

Author Matt Robinson connects the dots between media bias, the press’s obsession with polls, voter ignorance, and increasing disregard for the rule of law and the Constitution in Mobocracy: How the Media’s Obsession with Polling Twists the News, Alters Elections, and Undermines Democracy (Forum, an imprint of Prima Publishing; 374 pages; $24.95).

In the interest of full disclosure, Robinson is a friend of mine, and we worked together at Human Events for a year. As a friend and colleague, Robinson has always demonstrated an intimate knowledge of the founding fathers. That knowledge shines through in Mobocracy, underscoring the importance of an issue that, at first glance, seems arcane.

Conservatives habitually distrust the media, and most distrust the polls. This book justifies that instinct by providing the specifics — anecdotes and statistics. Mobocracy is an education in how to look at polls and what questions to ask of the media’s presentation of them. Robinson’s examples show strikingly how sample size and the method for selecting participants can drastically change the outcome of a poll. Also, Robinson makes the uncomfortable but undeniable point that the average American voter is uninformed about political and policy issues. Ignorance and the procedural problems of polling, he shows, undermine any claims that the polls reflect the “voice of the people.” In fact, the polls and the media’s coverage of them affect American opinion more then they reflect it, Robinson demonstrates.

Mobocracy is unapologetically right-wing in perspective, and so it will have limited appeal for Democratic loyalists and progressives. Robinson, in fact, argues for a more openly partisan media. Partiality, he says, is only insidious when disguised as objectivity.

Robinson is a connoisseur of rhetoric with a Founder fetish. He articulates well how Hamilton, Adams and Jefferson — despite their varying viewpoints — all agreed that establishing direct rule of the majority would be replacing one tyrant overseas with one million right here. The separation of powers and other limits on government were intended to keep the will of the masses from ruling the day. As Robinson shows, these are our bulwarks against servitude.

The Constitution was drafted, in part, to allow reasoned debate of crucial issues. As legislative and executive decisions are increasingly influenced by overnight polls commissioned by antsy networks, reasoned debate is becoming irrelevant. If you want to understand this form of mob rule better, Mobocracy is an essential read.